On Reading the Bible: Dispatches from the Carmichael-Walling Lectures

Each year ACU hosts the Carmichael-Walling Lectures which features New Testament scholars. Last year's lectures were given by Dr. Margaret Mitchell, professor of New Testament and early Christian literature in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. This year's lectures, which I attended tonight, were given by Dr. Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Emeritus in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University.

Interestingly, Dr. Mitchell's and Dr. Meeks' lectures had some intriguing convergences. But first, a funny story about me at last year's lectures.

Dr. Mitchell had just finished her second lecture on "Looking for Biblical Literalism - in All the Wrong Places." I'll get to this lecture in a minute, but it had to do with how biblical texts were being used on the Internet. So, during the Q&A I raise my hand to ask a question.

I ask, "Dr. Mitchell, with the ubiquitous presence of bible search engines now on the Internet, I wonder about the hermeneutical effects this will have on how this generation will view the biblical text. I wonder if you could comment on the Googlification of the bible and how it will impact how we see and read the bible."

At this point I'm patting myself on the back. What a great, insightful question I just asked in front of all these people! The "Googlification of the bible"! What great stuff! (And, to be more serious, this actually is a half-decent question. What does happen to the bible when people primarily approach it using Keyword and Topical searches?)

Well, Dr. Mitchell says to me, "That's a great question. But if we think about it, this actually isn't a new thing. For example, think of the Eusebian Canon."

The Eusebian Canon????? What is she talking about????? Regardless, Dr. Mitchell is looking right at me, as is an entire room of bible professors and graduate students, waiting for me to nod my head sagely and say, "Ah, yes! The Eusebian Canon! Of course, I should have remembered that. Excellent point!"

But the trouble is, I don't know what the Eusebian Canon is. No clue. Which puts me in a bit of a pickle. I can't nod yes. I have a lot of friends in the audience who know I have no clue what the Eusebian Canon is. And if I nod yes, they will bust me for years for being a faker.

So, I can't nod yes. But Dr. Mitchell is still looking at me, expectantly, clearly not going on until I give her the nod. Seconds are passing and the question is just hanging there in the air:

"Think of the Eusebian Canon."

And I say the only thing I can say:

"I'm very sorry, but I can't."

And the room erupts in laughter.

And it quickly dawns on Dr. Mitchell that this lecture is open to the public and that people, like me, might actually be in attendance who have no freaking clue what the Eusebian Canon is. It really was a funny moment.

Okay, back to the serious stuff.

Dr. Mitchell's second lecture was fascinating. The premise of her talk, "In Search of Biblical Literalism," was to go looking for biblical literalism among the websites of the Religious Right. The idea was this. The Religion Right, biblical fundamentalists, claim that there is a clear, unambiguous, and literal reading of the bible. The bible simply says what it says. This is often called the "plain sense" of the text.

So Dr. Mitchell takes us on a tour of fundamentalist Internet sites analyzing, as we go, how these biblical "literalists" are using the bible. And what do you find? Well, you don't find biblical literalism. But you do find lots and lots of biblical interpretation. Specifically, when the "plain sense" of the text suits their position on war, or sex, or gambling then the fundamentalists trot out the "plain sense." But when there are no proof texts available they resort to cobbling together texts, assumptions, and argument. The point? The biblical literalists aren't so literal. Far from it. And if the literalists aren't being literal then perhaps there is no "plain sense" of the text. All text involves interpretation.

Tonight, in this year's lectures, Dr. Meeks made a similar point. Specifically, Dr. Meeks discussed how people misuse the metaphor "What does the Bible say?"

Meeks made the point that when I use the phrase "The Bible says..." I'm actually engaging in a bit of fakery (his word). The Bible doesn't speak. We speak. We interpret. Thus, to say "The Bible says..." is disingenuous for it is I, and not the Bible, who is speaking. To use the phrase "The Bible says..." is just a power play, a way of hiding my interpretation behind the authority of the Good Book. Paraphrasing Dr. Meeks, when we say "The Bible says..." we are simply hiding the true power we want to enforce on others: Our own.

To conclude, I think Mitchell's observation that a literal reading of the bible just doesn't exist jives nicely with Meeks' point that the phrase "The Bible says..." is often just a power play.

(And for the record, I did eventually find out what the Eusebian Canon was.

And yes, Dr. Mitchell, you make an excellent point.)

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12 thoughts on “On Reading the Bible: Dispatches from the Carmichael-Walling Lectures”

  1. Your charming self-deprecating anecdotes are a real strength of this blog.

    I have no idea what the Eusebian Canon is either.

    On this same note, regarding post-foundationalist readings of scripture, have you read Dale Martin's book "Sex and the Single Savior"?

    He makes the point about the text not "speaking" extremely well.

  2. Haha... Awesome. I enjoyed this post and I could really picture you saying, "I'm very sorry, but I can't." I actually started laughing when I read that.

    Interesting. Makes me think of how I've taught scripture to people. Even though I speak of social Justice issues, it is no doubt I who is interpreting what the text says. But this goes back to a lot of reader response theory, which a part of would beg the question, "So does the Bible have anything to say on it's own?" or "Does the Bible merely rely on us for it's voice?"

    Does the text speak, or do we speak for it? And if the text cannot speak of itself, there are two questions to ask (at least in my mind at 1:30am... Are we to assume that God has called us to be the word incarnate since we are redeemed by Jesus (this bends more towards a theological answer, but I don't think it's completely out of the question) or Are we to assume that God is limited to speaking whenever we do not give his word a voice?

    Thoughts? Anyone?

  3. Aric,
    I had not seen Martin's book but it looks great. I've just ordered it from Amazon. Thank you very much for the recommendation. (Oh, from the last post: I do like Girard and blogged about him and Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice awhile back. It's found at the link of that title under "Interacting with Good Books" on my sidebar.)

    Those are great questions and people last night pushed Dr. Meeks on this a bit. How can we know what the bible is saying? And how can we adjudicate between good and bad readings? And are those readings stable or changing over time given that the interpreting community changes? That is, the Bible might not speak once for all time but may speak many different messages across time.

    My best guess is that the only decent way to discern if a reading is correct is to compare the life of the interpretive community with the life of Jesus. If those match up then the reading is "correct." If they don't match up then the reading isn't "correct." But this rubric is again showing my bias toward orthopraxy. That is, the Word of God, to be the Word of God, must be transformative. The reading is lived, it isn't comprehended.

  4. The only challenge with reading through the lens of Jesus is that we still have problems interpreting him. Granted, we probably have a lot more coherence on Jesus as opposed to other parts of the Bible. But I've definitely heard plenty of debates on what Jesus meant by some of the things he said and did. Some people take Jesus' words and actions literally, while others take him figuratively. I agree, Jesus helps adjudicate better, but even then, not everyone can fully agree on him.

  5. But you created no such charming anecdote at this year's C-W Lectures? That's a shame.

    As someone with a bit of inside knowledge about these events, I can assure you that the Mitchell-Meeks convergence in lecture topics was beyond intriguing. It may have been contrived.

    P.S. Thanks for putting in a plug for the Eusebian Canons. If more people knew about the Eusebian Canons, I think the world would be a better place...

  6. Jeff,

    But the charming upshot is that Richard's confession of ignorance of the Eusebian canon shows up in full splendor if you Google "Eusebian canon." I Googled the phrase to confirm I had a vague notion of it and had not conflated it with the great book of Ephebians of my childhood Sunday School experience.


    George C.

  7. I was thinking once about we tend to do the same thing with the word "authorized." I've heard that word thrown around used to say, "The Bible does or doesn't authorize this thing or that thing." But it's my belief that the Bible can't authorize anything - nor can the Bible "say" anything as you point out. Only an author can "authorize", and the Bible is the thing written, not the thing writing.

    God authorizes. The Spirit authorizes, Christ authorizes, and apparently King James authorizes, but the Bible authorizes nothing.

    What do you think?

  8. Daniel,
    Of course you are right. The situation improves a bit but it doesn't fully resolve the issue.

    Jeff, George, Matthew,
    Hey, Matthew's right. This post might just become THE internet source for the Eusebian Canon. How ironic would that be?

    I think you are right. There is a whole suite of images associated with the personification metaphor, the Bible-as-Person. "The Bible speaks" and the "Bible authorizes" are a part of this collection. So would "The Bible condemns" and "following the Bible." Meeks' point isn't that we can't use these metaphors, just that we need to understand and be vigilant that they ARE metaphors and that at the end of the day it is the interpreting community (in my history it has been the Churches of Christ) that is speaking, authorizing, condemning, and leading.

  9. "This post might just become THE internet source for the Eusebian Canon"

    One problem... you never actually defined what the canon was. I still had to go to wikipedia to find out.

  10. Richard,

    I'm a church historian and I can't remember what the Eusebian canon is! Must look it up -- but will go to wikipedia.

    Nice post though -- how often do we say -- "the Bible says" -- and what we should be saying, as I read the Bible this is what I'm hearing it say. Many of our debates could be settled amicably if we would admit that we all are dealing with interpretation -- indeed, translation itself requires interpretation!

  11. Have you listened to David Parker's Carmichael-Walling Lectures from years ago (I think like 1998)?

    He deals explicitly with your question of how the forms of texts inform hermeneutics. He explores differences from scroll to codex to personal bible to on-screen. Really interesting.

    I know this is from years ago, but if the question remains for you, you should check it out!

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